Teaching an Indigenous Language Using Social VR at Georgian College

Maryam Ismail, a student in Georgian’s Anishnaabemowin and Program Development program, wears a VR headset (source)

I really think the format has improved my learning…After COVID-19, I can’t wait to go back to school, but keeping VR would add so much to the curriculum. I think it should be part of the curriculum.

—Maryam Ismail, a Georgian College student

Rob Theriault, who is Immersive Technology Lead at Georgian College in Barrie, Ontario, Canada, and president of the Canadian Chapter of the Immersive Learning Research Network, has worked with staff and faculty from Indigenous Studies to create an immersive Indigenous Language House that’s providing students in the college’s Anishnaabemowin and Program Development program a unique and fun way to connect to Anishnaabe culture through language.

Anishinaabemowin (also called Ojibwemowin, the Ojibwe/Ojibwa language, or Chippewa) is an Indigenous language, spoken in Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.

Some examples of Anishinaabemowin words and phrases

Georgian College reports:

The inspiration for one of the early pilots came from a session Rob attended on English as a second language. People were learning to order food inside a virtual coffee shop. He knew this approach would be a perfect fit for Georgian’s Indigenous language program. Michele O’Brien, program coordinator for all Indigenous programming, was quick to see the potential benefits.

The first module of language lessons in the program is based around the home. Using AltspaceVR, Rob built a house and furnished it and put information buttons on all the items in the house. Faculty member Angeline King and Elder Ernestine Baldwin translated a word list for everything so that when a student clicks on the button, the Anishnaabemowin word pops up.

The program has proven so successful that Jonathon Richter, CEO/President of the Immersive Learning Research Network (iLRN)…invited Michele and Angeline, along with other Indigenous groups, to attend a panel during the iLRN World Conference 2021 for a session on the iLRN House of Language, Culture, and Heritage – Teaching Native Language and Culture Using XR.

I am not allowed to embed the video from the iLRN 2021 conference on this blog, but you can watch it here on YouTube (it’s about an hour long).

In addition to AltspaceVR, the program has used the educational social VR platform ENGAGE. From a press release:

There is also a second house using the Engage software which includes voiceover translations with either King, Baldwin or another faculty member Mitchell Ackerman providing the pronunciation.

Georgian College is among a few schools in the world to offer Indigenous language education in an immersive virtual reality (VR) environment. (image source)

Georgian College is also making the virtual reality assets they’re building for language learning open source, so that they can be used by other Indigenous programs across Canada and around the world (please contact Rob Theriault for more information).

ENGAGE Announces a New Social VR Platform, ENGAGE Oasis

We want ENGAGE Oasis to be the LinkedIn of the metaverse.

—David Whelan, CEO, VR Education

VR Education, the Waterford, Ireland-based company that makes the educational social VR platform ENGAGE, has been doing well lately! Last year, they reported that revenue jumped 43%, to €1m (US$1,188,380). And the company just announced that they had successfully raised US$10 million in venture capital.

They’re also launching a new social VR platform called ENGAGE Oasis, aimed at the corporate market (a market segment that I like to collectively call YARTVRA: Yet Another Remote Teamwork Virtual Reality App):

Inspired by the VR simulation known as OASIS in the book and film ‘Ready Player One’ ENGAGE Oasis will be an always on, fully persistent virtual world, where ENGAGE clients can meet and sell products and services directly to each other. Designed for business professionals, corporations, young professionals, and college students, it is best seen as a cloud-based digital city where actual business can be done. Employees from the world’s largest corporations can connect with each other to generate new business ideas and deliver value to their respective organisations. ENGAGE Oasis aims to be an opportunity for corporate users to expand their customer base and provide immersive services at a reasonable price.

All the avatars and virtual locations will be tailored for professional users, and guidelines will be set by the owners of each sector. There will be no limits on digital artists or corporations regarding the virtual building blocks and styles used, allowing for unlimited branding opportunities. As part of this metaverse, a new marketplace will become available for
corporations and digital artists to sell digital items and provide services using non-fungible tokens, fiat currencies and
cryptocurrencies.

Now, as many long-time readers of the RyanSchultz.com blog well know, Auntie Ryan has OPINIONS… 😉

So I am going to go on record to say that “ENGAGE Oasis” is a terrible, TERRIBLE name, and I hope that VR Education changes it before launch! Everybody wants to jump on the Ready Player One bandwagon, it seems; this is the THIRD virtual reality platform that I know of that is called Oasis (here’s the first one; here’s the second one) .

As I have written before:

Another big problem with Oasis? As I mentioned earlier, it’s almost impossible to find this game on Google, due to so many other unrelated hits you get from searching on “Oasis”. Search on “Oasis VR” or “Oasis game” and you get the Ready Player One-branded experience by VIVEPORT, or the Chinese game company….Frankly, Oasis is a TERRIBLE name for a virtual world. It’s just too common a name for too many other things on the Internet.

Now, branching out from the profitable educational market (ENGAGE has gained 100 customers in just 2 years!) to launch a corporate cousin is a very savvy move by VR Education. They already have a viable, popular social VR platform, and it’s likely that those features which set ENGAGE apart from the competition (notably, three-dimensional recording and replaying of content) will make it into the Oasis product.

Other platforms, such as Breakroom by Sine Wave Entertainment (the makers of Sinespace), have seen great success recently, capitalizing on the unfortunate situation caused by the global coronavirus pandemic, selling to corporations and hosting virtual alternatives to real-life events such as conferences and training sessions. And I’m quite sure VR Education is also hungering for a slice of that pie!

VRScout reports:

“If Rec Room and Roblox are the TikTok and Twitch of the metaverse, we want ENGAGE Oasis to be the LinkedIn of the metaverse,” said David Whelan, CEO of VRE, in an official release. “We think that young professionals, corporations, digital artists, and service providers will love all the opportunities being part of the metaverse will lead to. With the pandemic and climate change causing businesses to rethink how they interact externally and internally, the virtual world provided by ENGAGE Oasis has the potential for exponential growth.”

ENGAGE is already a leader in the world of virtual communications, and our growing client base and proven technology underlines our belief that we can become the leader in the corporate metaverse. We look forward to updating the market on our progress, including launch partners, in the coming months.”

For more information on ENGAGE, visit their website, or follow them on social media: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube.

The Perks of Virtual World/Social VR Premium Memberships: Are They Worth It? What Do You Get?

Second Life (which I still consider to be the perfect model of the mature, fully-evolved virtual world that the companies creating the newer social VR platforms would be wise to study) has two levels of membership: Basic (free), and Premium. How Premium membership in Second Life works: for US$99 a year (or $32.97 quarterly, or $11.99 monthly), you get a set of benefits and perks over free, Basic user accounts:

Second Life Premium Membership (source)

VRChat is another platform that decided to offer a comparably-priced paid premium membership level last December, called VRChat Plus (which I first wrote about here). Now, upon first reading of the perks such a membership would offer me (see below), I was less than impressed (probably because I have been spoiled by all the goodies Second Life Premium memberships offer me in comparison).

Among the (relatively) small number of features for VRChat Plus users is the ability to set a user icon to display in a circle next to your user name:

But in conversation with Voices of VR podcaster Kent Bye last night via Zoom, he raised a point that I had hitherto failed to consider, Given my well-documented, one-man, scorched-earth campaign against Facebook and Oculus for, among other things, forcing Oculus headset users to get Facebook accounts and their toxic advertising-based business model which scrapes and strip-mines users’ personal data, why would I not support an alternative way for VRChat to earn a profit?

I stopped to think of what VRChat would be like with Facebook-like advertising, and I positively shuddered in revulsion. So this evening, I pulled out my credit card and ponied up for a VRChat Plus membership (US$99.99), so I now have the familiar “red Ryan” logo displayed next to my username in world (which has sort of become an icon for my brand, as I use it everywhere else, too). If it helps other users in VRChat recognize who I am, then I think it’s worthwhile.

My familiar “red Ryan” user icon

So, I have decided to do a quick survey of the major social VR and virtual world platforms, and find out whether or not they offer a paid premium service, and if so, what you get for your money.

Second Life

My alt Moesha Heartsong, sitting on the porch of her lovely Victorian Linden Home on the continent of Bellisseria (one of the many nice perks you get with your Second Life Premium membership)

Second Life Premium membership (currently priced at US$99 a year) offers you the following benefits:

  • A weekly L$300 stipend (basically enough to buy a nice outfit or pair of shoes for your avatar every week)
  • A L$1,000 sign-up bonus for first-time Premium users (can only be used once)
  • Priority entry when regions/sims are full of avatars (in other words, if a Basic user and a Premium user both try to get into a packed sim at the same time, the Premium user gets priority; this comes in handy at crowded shopping events, and I have made use of this perk often!)
  • A 1024m² virtual land allotment for use towards a nice starter Linden Home or a parcel on the Second Life mainland; this is another benefit I do take advantage of!
  • Expanded live-chat customer support (which I have used on occasion!)
  • Premium virtual gifts (frankly, kinda useless to me)
  • Exclusive access to Premium areas and experiences (such as building sandboxes)
  • Increased cap on missed IMs (which I never use)
  • Increased group membership limits (I make use of my groups ALL THE TIME! A freebie fashionista can NEVER have too many free group slots for store groups, freebie groups, etc. Basic accounts have 42 group slots, but Premium has 70;)
  • Voice morphing (never used it, myself; most SL users never use voice, anyways)
  • UPDATE 11:36 p.m.: Animesh (animated mesh) creator Medhue tells me that SL Premium members can attach two animesh items (e.g. pets such as Medhue’s delightful animesh cihuahua), while Basic members can only attach one.

Basically, I have three Premium accounts, with two lovely Linden Homes between them (which I think is the major benefit of a Premium membership). More group space and priority access to overcrowded sims are also perks I tend to use a lot.

Sansar

Sansar offers three levels of premium subscriptions (unchanged from when Linden lab owned the platform), which give you:

  • A 45-day free trial of the Marvelous Designer software (used to create avatar clothing in Sansar)
  • Purchase discounts on Marvelous Designer for when you do decide to buy it
  • An increase in the number of Sansar worlds you can create (frankly, I’m not sure most people bother beyond the free Basic account, which lets you create up to 25 worlds)
  • Expedited user support options

Sinespace

The Unity-based Sinespace virtual world/social VR platform, created by Sine Wave Entertainment, offers a truly overwhelming number of Premium levels to choose from:

Premium users can create larger regions/worlds, have a larger number of regions active at one time, and get priority support and user-created content processing and approval, among other benefits.

AltspaceVR

Surprisingly, Microsoft-owned AltspaceVR doesn’t seem to offer any premium accounts (that may change in the future, though).

VRChat

VRChat Plus offers you the following perks (with more promised soon):

  • A nameplate icon: With VRChat+, you can personalize your nameplate with an icon you create! Snap a pic in VRChat or upload your own image on our website.
  • You can send a picture with an invitation to a friend to join you at your location
  • Free slots for up to 100 favourite avatars (as opposed to 25 for basic users)
  • “A limited edition VRCat Badge to display on your profile” (Really? Really?!??)
  • A higher trust ranking in VRChat’s Safety and Trust System

As I said up top, this list is a bit sparse, especially compared to what Second Life offers (and yes, you can be an anime girl in SL, just as easily as you can in VRChat!), but of course, there’s zero VR support in Second Life.

Rec Room

Rec Room offers something called Rec Room Plus at US$7.99 a month, which includes the following benefits:

  • You get 6000 tokens (r6000) monthly, delivered in installments of r1500 per week
  • One four-star gift box per week
  • A 10% discount in Rec Room stores that accept tokens
  • Exclusive access to the RR+ section of the item store
  • 100 saved outfit slots
  • The ability to sell premium inventions/keys for tokens

NeosVR

NeosVR uses Patreon levels to hand out perks to various levels of paying users (more info). For example, at my current “Blade Runner” level ($6 per month), I get:

  • Access to private channels on the official Discord Server
  • Patreon supporter badge in Neos
  • Early access to Linux builds
  • Early Access to Patreon only content (exclusive experiences, work in progress experiences before they’re public)
  • A Neos Mini account with 25 GB of storage
  • Your name in the stars! (your name will appear in the sky in the Neos hub)
  • 30 Neos Credits (NCR) monthly, accumulates

(Note that there is an even less expensive level, the “Agent Smith” level, at just $1 a month. Please check out the NeosVR Patreon page for more details.)

ENGAGE

The ENGAGE educational/corporate/conference social VR platform offers a free, “lite” version, and a premium, “plus” version for €4.99 a month, which gives you space to save your presentations, among other benefits. (They also offer enterprise and educational rates on request.)

Blockchain-Based Virtual Worlds (Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space)

Of course, the various blockchain-based virtual worlds sell everything using whatever cryptocurrencies they support (for example, a custom, non-randomly-generated avatar username in Decentraland will set you back 100 MANA, Decentraland’s in-world cryptocurrency (which is about US$36 at current exchange rates). It’s just a completely different model than the “freemium” ones offered above.


Thanks to Kent Bye for giving me the idea for this blogpost!

Editorial: Why Conferences Held in AltspaceVR and VirBELA Have Been So Successful—And What Lessons Other Social VR Platforms and Virtual Worlds Can Learn from Their Success

Please note that I am taking a vacation from the blog for the next two to three weeks, except for sponsored blogposts (and the occasional editorial such as this).


The coronavirus pandemic has led to the cancellation of hundreds of real-life conferences, and led to a surge in business for platforms catering to virtual conferences, such as VirBELA and AltspaceVR (Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash).

This week, I have been attending various presentations and events at the Immersive Learning Research Network’s 2020 virtual conference. Most of the sessions are taking place in a white-label* version of the virtual world VirBELA, and it would appear that this world will remain in place after the iLRN 2020 conference ends, as a meeting place for various groups of researchers.

The iLRN 2020 organizers are also using FRAME (a VirBELA project) for virtual poster sessions: smaller group gatherings around particular research topics. These poster sessions were accessible right from a browser on desktop, mobile, or even in virtual reality (more information on that can be found here).

The popular success of this conference in VirBELA (with well over 200 people in-world at any given time), plus the associated social events taking place in AltspaceVR, has got me thinking about another highly successful conference which I attended (and presented at) back in February 2020, the first-ever Educators in VR 2020 International Summit. In that case, most of the conference sessions were held in AltspaceVR, and the Educators in VR conference was really an opportunity for the platform to shine (there were also events taking place in ENGAGE, rumii, Mozilla Hubs, and Somnium Space, with livestreaming to other platforms).

What were the factors that led to such successful virtual conferences in AltspaceVR and in VirBELA?

  1. Scalability of the Platform: In both cases, you could pack a large number of people into a shared virtual space. This was especially notable in the case of VirBELA, where the simple (but still highly customizable) avatars, coupled with many possible graphics quality settings in the client software, meant that you could have well north of a hundred avatars attending a single session without noticeable performance issues. And AltspaceVR’s cartoony avatars serve an important purpose: making the platform much easier to render on less powerful computers and devices.
  2. Broader Device Support: VirBELA offers both Windows and Mac clients, and their Intercom Apps are compatible with iPhone, iPad, and even iPod touch! And AltspaceVR boasts support for a wide array of devices: when I last compiled my comparison chart of 16 social VR platforms last November, the list included Oculus Rift, Oculus Quest, Oculus Go, HTC Vive, Valve Index, Windows MR, Gear VR, and Google Daydream (please see the image below, taken from their website).
  3. Better Features: VirBELA is stuffed to the brim with useful features which make hosting a conference a breeze (e.g. the ability to quickly shift focus to one of three different presentation screens, or the podium/stage). AltspaceVR has also had a whole bunch of new features added to make holding events much easier (such as the ability to mute the audience, a raise your hand feature to ask questions, etc.).
  4. Responsive Support: It’s very clear that, in the cases of both the Educators in VR and iLRN 2020 conferences, that the platforms were heavily involved in providing support and troubleshooting to the conference organizers. Such support, often offered in real time, is critical to the success of any virtual conference.

So, what lessons can other social VR platforms and virtual worlds learn from these successes, as they seek out new customers in the pandemic-fueled boom in virtual conferences?

First: You need to find ways to work around the technical limits in the number of people who can gather in a virtual space. For example, Sansar is absolutely gorgeous, and I could see it being used for conferences—if you could get more than 30 avatars into a single world! (However, Sansar does allow for multiple broadcast instances as a way to get around that limit.)

Second Life also has significant technical limitations on the number of avatars you can pack onto one sim before it heaves in protest (again, for major events such as the Live Stage at the SL 17th Birthday celebrations, a stage is located at the intersection of four sims to allow a larger audience).

In March 2018, I wrote an earlier blogpost about simultaneous avatar capacity per region in various virtual worlds here (this information is now probably out of date, though). VirBELA’s and AltspaceVR’s low-poly avatars make it much easier to gather a larger crowd at events in a single region than the beautiful but high-poly, poorly-optimized mesh avatars of Second Life. Sinespace’s Breakroom offers users the choice of dressable, higher-poly avatars or one-piece, non-customizable lower-poly avatars, which I presume will render better.

To summarize this first point: the more users you can bring together, the better.

Second: The more devices and means of access you can support, the more likely your platform will appeal to a larger number of people. As the team developing Sansar and the old High Fidelity learned to their chagrin, betting the farm on high-powered, PC VR users was a tactical error. The majority of people attending these conferences do not have a VR headset, using desktop computers with flatscreen monitors and even in some cases mobile devices like tablets and cellphones. You need to meet the users wherever they are.

Third: If you expect to attract the conferences, you will need to offer the features that conference organizers are looking for. Breakroom is an example of a product which offers a wide variety of features targeted to business, education, and conference customers. There is nothing worse than to try a jerry-rig workarounds for the limitations of a platform, trust me.

Finally: You need to provide real-time, responsive customer support. This is one area where many platforms simply fail to deliver the level of concierge support required to host conferences. For example, both of the recent Blockdown virtual crypto conferences (which were held in a special, white-label version of Sinespace) were well-staffed with Sinespace employees and volunteers to ensure that things ran smoothly. It’s a cost of doing business if you want to attract business.

If you were to hold a conference in Sansar (which you wouldn’t, because of the limitations outlined in points 1, 2, and 3 above), and if something were to go wrong, you would probably have some trouble getting the real-time support you needed from the team at Wookey (although I assume it will be an all-hands-on-deck situation for the upcoming Lost Horizon festival; Sansar simply cannot afford to fumble this opportunity to showcase their platform to the world).

For example, the Lost World Global Music Festivals two-day event (which has the great misfortune to be scheduled the exact same weekend as the Lost Horizon event), is having some trouble getting the word out, and frankly, Wookey-owned Sansar should be providing assistance in both promotion and technical support of events held on their platform, instead of relying on unpaid and overworked volunteers (I would hope that at least someone at Wookey is tasked with tech support if something goes wrong that weekend, but I suspect that the company’s entire focus will be on the Lost Horison festival, instead of the competing Lost World event).

In short, bare-bones customer support sends a message: you’re on your own. Corporate users such as conference organizers expect a higher standard of service, otherwise they will take their business elsewhere.

For example, ENGAGE has landed lucrative business with HTC (including a partnership as part of the Vive XR Suite) as a direct result of the successful HTC Vive Ecosystem virtual conference held on that platform in March this year. Sinespace also seems to be well-attuned to the needs of the business and conference market with their new Breakroom product (and, of course, their support for white-label corporate and conference use of their flagship Sinespace product).

The success of platforms such as AltspaceVR and VirBELA leads to positive word of mouth among the conference attendees, who can see the potential applications, and which naturally leads to increased business opportunities; it’s a virtuous circle.

The question is: will Sansar and other social VR platforms and virtual worlds pay attention to the lessons being taught by the highly successful and popular virtual conferences held this year by a number of platforms?


*White labeling is when a product or service removes their brand and logo from the end product and instead uses the branding requested by the purchaser. Recent examples include the iLRN 2020 conference (held in a white-label version of VirBELA) and the Blockdown series of conferences (hosted in a white-label version of Sinespace). This is a feature that is attractive to corporate and conference customers, which is not offered by many social VR platforms and virtual worlds to date.